Covid-19 threatens millions of people and has forced governments to adopt radical lockdown measures, risking unprecedented economic downturn. However, these measures draw upon a scarce resource: people’s discipline and willingness to put their lives on hold. Once patience wanes and restrictions trigger a blowback, no democratic government can enforce strict lockdown measures against a majority of its citizens. Here, Claudia Landwehr and Armin Schäfer explore policy decisions and their effects in the United States, United Kingdom, Hungary, Poland, and Germany. Each case study highlights the intersection between leadership and democratic governance and how these influence a country’s ability to combat Covid-19.
The spread of the novel coronavirus across the globe poses an enormous public health and economic crisis; similarly, it is a crisis of, and for governance. This may be especially the case for democracies, as in such emergency situations public safety concerns are weighed against foundational freedoms and the norms and expectations of a democratic citizenry. In these fraught times, Items seeks to call attention to the democratic politics of pandemics.
These thought-provoking and timely essays investigate the implications of Covid-19, pandemics, and major crises more generally, for democratic governance. Through this forum, Items brings a diverse array of scholars into conversation by asking: How does a public health threat the scale of Covid-19 shape democratic governance—from institutional dynamics and the role of government to citizen participation? Furthermore, what can we learn from how responses to Covid-19 differ across contexts—about inequalities, political processes, and the strengths or weaknesses of varieties of democracy?
This essay series, and the work of the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program, is possible due to generous funding from the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, the Mark and Anla Cheng Kingdon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
This theme of our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” essay series has been curated by Jonathan Hack, program officer of the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program, and Ron Kassimir, vice president of programs at the SSRC.
In this “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” essay, Rosemary Taylor delves into comparisons of Covid-19 with other major diseases in world history, from the Spanish Flu to SARS. She notes that history often fails to teach leaders and experts the “lessons” we might expect, arguing that institutional actors are likely to hold on to longstanding, culturally ingrained methods of disease management. She notes that new popular understandings about diseases (such as animal-human transition) have led to complicated policy responses with mixed results, concluding that while history may not always clearly tell us what to do, it can warn us about impending challenges. Importantly, it reminds us to pay close attention to repairing social conditions that made us vulnerable to a pandemic in the first place.
In this essay for the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Sarah Parkinson examines authoritarian practices at work in White House press briefings regarding Covid-19 in the United States. She argues that the briefings can serve as a barometer of the state of US democracy at the same time that they actively erode democratic norms and institutions. She finds that there are three ways in which the briefings challenge democracy: prompting obedience without belief, establishing guidelines for speech and behavior, and overwhelming the attention of the media.
In this “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” essay, Julia Lynch asks how social inequality affects government’s ability to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. She argues that social inequality makes pandemics more severe not just for the most vulnerable, but for the whole of society. Lynch notes that many of the preexisting conditions that increase the severity of Covid-19—medical and not—are consequences of social inequality and that this same inequality will likely prolong the pandemic. She insists that additional income support and personal protective equipment guarantees in the short term, as well as a more equal distribution of income in the long term, are required to mitigate social inequality, lowering society’s vulnerability to a global pandemic like Covid-19.
In this “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” essay, Domingo Morel investigates the relationship between the Covid-19 crisis, social inequality in the United States, and public schools. He argues that certain education reform movements in recent history have left public schools, which disproportionately serve low-income communities of color, particularly vulnerable to a global pandemic. Morel finds that efforts to “reimagine” public education in this moment are not attentive to the needs of these vulnerable schools and communities. He asserts that this is a violation of the equal right to education that should be guaranteed in a democratic society.
In this “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” essay, Jake Haselswerdt asks how the Covid-19 pandemic will affect political participation, particularly voting, in the United States. Comparing the current pandemic to the financial and housing crisis of 2008—a year in which the United States held a high-turnout election—Haselswerdt debunks the notion that when Americans’ lives are disrupted by crisis, they are mobilized to turn out to vote against incumbents. Drawing on recent research about “personal crisis,” he finds that it can actually demobilize citizens as they divert their time and energy to more basic needs. Importantly, the specific constraints of a pandemic—from lockdowns to loss of life—are likely to have additional demobilizing effects.
In this contribution to our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Margaret Weir explores how social solidarity manifests across differing contexts. She makes three points of contrast between the United Kingdom and the United States: pre-existing healthcare institutions, economic stimulus strategies, and public leadership on racial and ethnic differences. Weir argues that these three areas explain why social solidarity has been maintained in the United Kingdom compared to the United States despite similar national attempts to confront the Covid-19 pandemic.
María Victoria Murillo outlines some of the immediate consequences of Covid-19 for democratic governance in Latin America for our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series. Comparing cases across the region, she notes that the pandemic has weakened two crucial mechanisms for democratic accountability—elections and protests—across contexts, while at the same time strengthening strongman executives and increasing intragovernmental tensions. Murillo argues that the region needs creative new policies to reopen avenues for political accountability that might strengthen democratic governance.
Thomas Pepinsky explores one explanation for why some countries are more successful at managing Covid-19 than others for our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series. By comparing the accomplishments of social democracies like Germany and “developmental states” like South Korea with the relative failures of democracies like Italy and the United States, he explores which traits among advanced, capitalist democracies entail more effective policy responses. Pepinsky argues that the strong role of the state in the national economy is the common through line among democracies that have fared better. Ultimately, successful democratic responses to dealing with pandemics is a matter of political economy.
Risk for “Us,” or for “Them”? The Comparative Politics of Diversity and Responses to AIDS and Covid-19by Evan Lieberman
In his essay for our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Evan Lieberman writes about the influence of social diversity on the politics of infectious disease control. How does the articulation of ethnic, racial, and national boundaries impede effective policy responses? Using the AIDS crisis as a comparative case-study, Lieberman asks if data that emphasize ethnic, racial, and national categories—while they may be intended to highlight and mitigate disparities—have the potential to stigmatize vulnerable groups during a pandemic. He calls on social science to investigate how such categories influence risk perceptions, citizen behaviors, and government responses.